Many businesses today find themselves locked in an arms race with competitors to see who can convert customer secrets into the most pennies. To try to win, they are building perfect digital dossiers, to use a phrase coined by Daniel Solove, massive data stores containing hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of facts about every member of our society. In my work, I've argued that these databases will grow to connect every individual to at least one closely guarded secret. This might be a secret about a medical condition, family history, or personal preference. It is a secret that, if revealed, would cause more than embarrassment or shame; it would lead to serious, concrete, devastating harm. And these companies are combining their data stores, which will give rise to a single, massive database. I call this the Database of Ruin. Once we have created this database, it is unlikely we will ever be able to tear it apart.
I have become convinced that my earlier, bleak predictions about the Database of Ruin were in fact understated, arriving before it was clear how Big Data would accelerate the problem. Consider the most famous recent example of big data's utility in invading personal privacy: Target's analytics team can determine which shoppers are pregnant, and even predict their delivery dates, by detecting subtle shifts in purchasing habits. This is only one of countless similarly invasive Big Data efforts being pursued. In the absence of intervention, soon companies will know things about us that we do not even know about ourselves. This is the exciting possibility of Big Data, but for privacy, it is a recipe for disaster.
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